And here, so far from Spindle Cove and her ambitious mother, almost anything seemed possible.
But then he looked at the sky. “We’d best be on our way home.”
On the way home, Charlotte declared herself exhausted. She made a bed for herself in the back of the wagon.
Diana sat on the driver’s box beside Aaron. They talked of nothings for the first hour or so, while the sun sank lower in the sky.
Finally, Diana chanced a quick look over her shoulder at the wagon bed. “I think she’s asleep.”
“Thank God.” Aaron transferred the reins to one hand, then used his free arm to draw her close. He tucked her head against his shoulder. “You can rest, too, if you like.”
“And waste this precious time with you? Never.” She looked up at him. “I liked your sister very much.”
Diana laughed a little. “No, she didn’t. She was kind and hospitable, but terribly suspicious of me.”
He shook his head in denial.
“Yes, she was. She was suspicious of me because she cares about you. And that’s why I liked her.” She reached up and touched his newly cropped hair. “I’m glad you have someone looking out for you.”
His hand stroked up and down her arm.
“I hope you weren’t offended that I didn’t tell my own sister the truth.”
“Did you? Perhaps you can explain it to me, then.”
She felt him shrug. “No reason to have your family in a lather until you’re sure about a thing.”
“There’s no rush. We’re just getting to know one another.”
Were they, really? Diana was so confused. This was more than a casual acquaintance. She was coming to care for him. In truth, she’d begun to care for him some time ago, but every hour they spent together strengthened the attraction.
He wasn’t just a well-built body, a handsome face, and a talented kisser. He was a good man, and he deserved to be with someone who could love him unreservedly. He was offering her patience, but she knew she owed it to him to make up her mind. Either accept him for the man he was, or let him find someone else.
It was as though he heard her thoughts.
He glanced at her. “I won’t think less of you.”
“I’d think less of me.”
He put space between them, and his voice grew stern. “Don’t do this to prove something about yourself, Diana. Not to me, or to your mother, or to anyone. There’s no shame in honesty. And there’s no romance in glossing over the realities. We could both cite several reasons to let this go.”
“You mean realities such as . . . you need a wife who can cook?”
“Or that you need a husband who can move in society.”
“Your sister might never accept me,” she said.
He nodded and said, in a perfectly serious tone, “Your mother might implode.”
She laughed, then laid her head on his shoulder. “Honestly, it’s Charlotte. The effect on Charlotte is my greatest concern.”
“And that’s not something to be brushed aside. If my own sister’s future were at risk, I’d be thinking long and hard about it, too.”
As they crested another of Sussex’s rolling hills, she wondered if she’d ever meet another man who made her feel so free to be honest. And she had the awful, sinking feeling that with all their honesty, they’d just talked themselves out of a future together.
“Aaron, I know it’s unrealistic to say the differences won’t matter. To say ‘Love conquers all.’ But if you—”
Oh, drat. She’d used the word love. She’d broken the cardinal rule of female subtleties, as her mother described them. She’d spoken That Word aloud, and he wasn’t ready for it.
And now it truly was over.
Aaron had never been more reluctant to interrupt a lady, but in this instance, he had no choice.
He slowed the horses to a walk and explained, “There’s someone in the road ahead. Stay calm, and let me do the talking.”
To the side of the road, a donkey cart appeared to have lost its wheel. The driver of the cart stood in the center of the lane, wearing a patched coat and waving his hat in a plea for assistance.
“He might be looking for help.” Or he might be looking for trouble.
Aaron stopped a fair distance from the cart. He reached under the driver’s box and retrieved the pistol he kept there. He’d loaded the weapon before setting off from Hastings, and now he was glad of it. This man looked honest enough at a glance—but it never hurt to be cautious.
Patched Coat jammed his hat back on his head and approached their wagon. “Good afternoon, sir. My cartwheel’s gone off its axle, and I can’t repair it on my own. As you can see, the missus is in a delicate state.”
He nodded toward the cart, and behind it Aaron could make out the shadowy form of a woman great with child.
“Can I ask for a moment’s assistance, sir? With the two of us, we should have it mended in a trice.”
Aaron hesitated. There was a canny glint in the man’s eyes and an oily quality in his smile. He didn’t like this.
But Diana dug her elbow into his ribs. “She’s pregnant. Night will fall before long. We have to help them.”
That settled matters. Aaron was obligated now. He couldn’t look like a callous, unsympathetic monster in front of the woman who had, just two minutes ago, danced on the verge of professing to love him.
“I’ll be right there,” he told the man, and he directed the horses as they pulled the wagon aside.
“You stay here,” he told Diana in a firm, low voice. He put the pistol in her lap and the reins in her hands. “Chances are, I’ll be back in two minutes. But if anything untoward happens, you drive away. If I call to you to drive, you drive away. Do you understand? If there’s trouble, I can handle myself. But I can’t handle myself and protect you and Charlotte.”
Aaron jumped down from the wagon, and his boots landed in the mud with a squelch. He rued wearing his finest coat now, having stupidly donned it just to impress Diana. The later the hour, the greater the dangers of highway travel grew. Any appearance of riches could put her at risk.
“I do appreciate your help,” Patched Coat said, walking him over to the disabled cart. “This will take no time at all. Big fellow like you? You can lift, and I’ll replace the wheel.”
Aaron ducked and took a quick peek under the cart. Though the wheel was off the axle, he saw nothing broken or damaged. In fact, the dried mud on the wheel rims suggested this cart hadn’t moved in several hours.
“You’ll want to remove your coat,” the man said. “My missus would be glad to hold it for you.”
Of course she would. And she’d be glad to strip the contents from every pocket while she was at it.
Aaron saw exactly what was happening now. This couple had probably been sitting by the road all afternoon, taking that cartwheel off and then flagging down passersby for assistance in “repairing” it. While the unsuspecting travelers performed a good deed, the “missus” would relieve them of their coin.
At least these were petty swindlers, not violent highwaymen. Aaron could get out of this easily enough.
He played along to a point, dutifully lifting the cart so that Patched Coat could fit the wheel back on the axle. Just as he’d probably done four times already today.
Aaron tipped his hat to Mrs. Patched Coat—whose pregnant belly looked a great deal lumpier than any he’d ever seen—and took his leave. “Best of luck to you both.”
Find some other unsuspecting fool to gull.
Damn it, the bastard followed him. “Say, I wonder if you could spare a blanket or—”
Aaron stopped in his paces and wheeled on him. “Not another step.”
Aaron lowered his voice to a threat and loomed over the man. “You will not come one step nearer my wagon. I’ve helped you with your cart. If you know what’s good for you, turn around and walk back.”
“Aaron?” Diana called from the wagon. “Is everything all right?”
He lifted his eyebrows at Patched Coat. You tell me. Are you going to be sensible and turn around, slink back to your donkey cart? Or is this going to get ugly?
It got ugly. The man pulled a knife.
Aaron took a quick step back, putting himself out of reach.
“That’s a fine lady you have there,” the man said, gesturing with the gleaming point of his blade. “I’d imagine you work to keep her happy. Surely there’s something in your wagon my missus would enjoy.”
Without turning his gaze, Aaron lifted his voice. “Diana, drive on. Now.”
“I can’t,” she replied. “I’m not going to leave you here.”
When several seconds passed and Diana failed to obey his command, a smile spread across Patched Coat’s face. He swiveled the blade back and forth, taunting. “I think she likes me.”
Aaron swung on instinct, wanting to knock that smile straight off the bastard’s face and grind his nose into the gravel. His punch connected—but so did Patched Coat’s blade, slashing through the wool of Aaron’s coat sleeve.
They reeled apart from each other and prepared to clash again.
On some level, Aaron registered the fact that he’d been cut. But his mind took the pain and stashed it away for later. He could weather far worse—and he would. He was the human equivalent of an oak tree. If this bastard wanted to bring him down with that puny blade, he’d have to hack at Aaron all night long.
“Diana,” he said, keeping his eyes on that glittering, twisting blade. “For the last time, go.”
Patched Coat began to chuckle. “See now, my missus always listens to me.” He lifted his voice and called to his wife. “Search the wagon while I hold him here.”
The click of a pistol being cocked.
“I don’t think so.” Diana’s voice, as cool and calm as he’d ever heard it. “Step away from him,” she told Patched Coat. “Or I will shoot.”
Aaron cringed. Damn it all. Why had she refused to drive away? This couldn’t end well. If she lost her nerve, she could lose her life. And if she did shoot . . . He knew Diana. Taking a life would weigh heavy on her, even if the act was justified.
“Step away from him now,” she repeated, “or I will shoot.”
As the smoke cleared, Patched Coat let out a howl of pain, clutching his right hand in his left. The hand didn’t appear to be bleeding, but the knife was gone.
Good Lord. Aaron realized what had happened. She’d shot the thing clean out of his hand. And the force of the weapon ripping free must have hurt—perhaps broken some of his fingers or his wrist.
“Jesus,” the man whimpered, doubling over and nursing his wounded hand. “That sodding bitch.”
Aaron had spent a lifetime staring into red-hot flames. And in that moment, he saw shades of red he’d never dreamed existed. He whipped a back-handed blow across the man’s face. Then he grabbed that patched overcoat by the lapels and held the despicable knave close.
“I will rip out your tongue,” he growled, “and feed it back to you.”
He drove his knee into the blackguard’s gut.
He wanted to follow with a crushing punch to the jaw. Then a kick to the ribs. He could have pummeled the bastard into the mud and left him for the carrion birds.